Being ‘more valuable’ to clients can mean many different things, but all iterations involve understanding your people’s current skills, and how you work together to adapt and evolve both them and your practice

Technological advances in the accountancy space, whether it’s for your back office or client-facing, have been rapid in recent years. It does feel that anything is possible.

Despite these advances, coupled with the technical nature of accountants’ offering, it is still a ‘people game’. You must get to know and understand your clients’ requirements, and understand your own team members’ personalities and skills.

Therefore, using tech to automate your services and provide a broader and richer offering requires more than IT investment.

 

Where do you start? Is it the client, the tech or your people?

Paul Richmond, managing director of people consultants theGrogroup, says that you must first set out a vision and strategy to deliver future success. “An accountant in 2030 will need to be an adviser, tech-savvy and a change expert,” he explains. “They will need to be widely connected and know people who help clients. Key talents will need to be curiosity, adaptability, emotional intelligence and a growth mindset.”

But these skills and personality traits are
difficult to capture in one person. And from a cultural perspective, practices have focused on compliance services that are defined by collating historic data – which means forward-looking services will require a shift in culture.

“It’s not an overnight switch. You can’t just say your job is going to change now; it’s an impossible thing to do,” says Aynsley Damery, CEO of business advisory platform Clarity. “‘Historic’ is ingrained in accounting, the ethos of preparing things based on the last year, so there requires a shift into the unknown.”

A key skill for all client-facing staff is empathy, he explains, as it puts your people in a position to listen and understand what clients are going through. “Most employees don’t know what it’s like to understand what it’s like running a business… the fears, hopes and challenges – everything a client’s going through,” says Damery. “It’s incumbent on leaders to help staff understand this, so when clients are upset or cross they will turn to you to share with.

“It is about your people becoming sounding boards – not necessarily ‘business gurus’. They need to be open, help understand the issues and challenges, and to avoid asking ‘closed’ questions,” Damery adds.

 

Focus on the process

Beyond strategy and culture comes process, setting out what you will do and how you will bring your practice closer to defining who undertakes which tasks.

“I’d map out the functions of the firm as a whole,” says Accounts & Legal director Stuart Hurst. “Rather than individual job descriptions, I’d look at job processes and ask people how they get from A to B to C to D… then ask the best way of doing it and what the barriers are to it improving.”

Setting out this path encourages your people to change and mould according to your overall direction of travel, rather than a pre-defined job description. “This way you’re changing the day-to-day… otherwise you create resistance,” says Hurst.

Once you understand where your practice is and where it’s heading, alongside a broad definition of how your people need to work and communicate with clients, what is next?

“I’m a big fan of really understanding what type of people you have in your team,” says Hurst. “Those that are more naturally extrovert will likely get more involved with clients and will be an easier conversion towards more proactive support.”

 

Ask the right questions

Clarity’s Damery believes a more nuanced approach is required, suggesting that extroverts aren’t always the best fit with certain clients. “It’s more about those that listen and ask the right questions,” he suggests.

“Remember that you’re not throwing people on stage and asking them to perform, and there isn’t ‘one way’ to train everybody – find methodologies that work for certain individuals. Build a culture of trust where people can fail safely, let them make mistakes in a controlled environment, and build trust and learn from it.”

You are looking to instil into your people that they need to open their mindset, that the firm is on a journey and you want them as part of that – though some things will change.

TheGrogroup’s Richmond poses an example of how the mindset and attitude must move. “One of the key frustrations we have is when accountants say: ‘We did a client survey and scored 8/10’. Well, you would because you asked the question: ‘Are we good accountants and do we give you enough help?’ To which the answer will be ‘yes’,” he says.

“However, what if you were bold and said: ‘To what extent do we help you with your strategy? Have we helped you grow your business this year? Do we enable you to grow your client base and suppliers?’ Ask that, and the response is likely to be 3/10.”

Damery suggests that taking such actions to change your firm’s direction doesn’t mean turning it upside down. Changes can be iterative and not necessarily revolutionary.

“There is still a place for people to do mainly technical work and a need for that,” he says. “Clients aren’t generally looking for anything mindblowing but focus, awareness and accountability – that shouldn’t be scary.

“Empower your team and give them the confidence to ask clients what you can help them with – ask the basic questions and respond in their language. They want help with the numbers, but also planning and the impact of the numbers and what different projections mean for them.”

 

Learn from each other

If you have junior team members that are more comfortable with using new apps, and some senior members very comfortable with having valuable conversations with clients, then there is the opportunity for both to learn from each other.

“Certainly, if you’re looking to upscale people in terms of facing clients, then you have to bring them along to the meetings; there needs to be a mindset of coaching staff,” says Stuart Hurst.

Paul Richmond also extols the virtues of training. “If your firm is becoming more adviser-led then training and recruitment must reflect that. You’re looking at relationship skills, EQ, influencing, persuasion and the ability to lead clients – ensuring your people want to know as much about clients as possible,” Richmond explains.

 

Be adaptable

As suggested earlier, adaptability is a key trait in a firm looking to support clients more proactively. And understanding your people’s ability to adapt may only come through experience. “While it’s trainable it’s much easier to recruit it,” says Richmond.

“You need to be having conversations with your individuals and using tools such as the nine-box grid to evaluate potential, and their appetite to adjust and develop. But people are either motivated by change and challenge or afraid of it.”

Hurst says: “The worst-case scenario is that someone doesn’t fit. Then it’s about reallocating – you need to have the right people in the right seat. That is not necessarily an easy or instant decision, so think carefully about performance management.

“Sometimes you have to nurture where you’re heading. With advisory it can be a bit more of an open conversation and by nature vary – certainly by client-by-client.”

Richmond asks you to consider which KPIs and metrics are being used to measure your firm’s success in operating with a different model.

“What do you want to hear back from a client?” he asks. “‘My accountant is always there for me and interested in how I do’. Then you must measure how often people contact clients or suggest ideas to them – what gets measured gets done. So, forget ‘who has hit budget’ and instead ask questions about client communication or adaptability.”

 

  • Kevin Reed is a freelance journalist and former editor of Accountancy Age.

AdvanceTrack has teamed up with business advisory platform Clarity to offer clients a way to understand and improve their business

We have exciting news of a new partnership, bringing together AdvanceTrack’s outsourcing capability with support to build and deliver a top-level advisory service. Clarity has partnered with us to provide an exclusive offer for AdvanceTrack’s clients.

Clarity is a business advisory platform harnessing AI, machine learning and blockchain, which uses the right combination of people, process and tech to transform the business advisory services of accounting firms worldwide.

Clarity’s offering helps practices support clients in understanding their numbers – and how to improve them. Accountants can help them create a step-by-step plan to build a better business and, through a structured online data room, help access the cash and investment to grow or exit. The Clarity platform empowers 100% of accounting teams to help 100% of their small business clients with business advisory.

Its founder and CEO is Aynsley Damery – a qualified accountant and former CEO of a multi-award winning niche advisory accounting firm for entrepreneurs in the UK.

 

“Our world is now so connected – both people and devices, and the ability to reach customers is no longer restricted by borders,” said Aynsley. “The move to the cloud and the ability to analyse big data opens up incredible opportunities for many accounting firms. Harnessing the power of technology effectively has become critical to gain competitive advantage.”

 

 

 

 

AdvanceTrack founder and MD Vipul Sheth said that, by outsourcing, accountants should be freed to drive client value. “We want practices to break free from spending all their time on compliance work that can be managed and processed in a better way,” he said.

“And by freeing them from these bonds, they can make much better use of their time understanding and advising their clients on growth, or their longer-term aims.”

Get in touch with #TeamClarity on info@clarity-hq.com to find out how you can benefit from our partner programme, plus an advanced implementation plan to get your firm on track.

scaling for growth

It was ‘accountants galore’ on AdvanceTrack’s latest webinar, ‘Scaling for Growth? Building an Advisory Mindset and Firm’, which discussed the cultural and strategic approach towards making a practice invaluable to its clients.

AdvanceTrack MD Vipul Sheth started the conversation by highlighting the key challenges of changing how a practice – or any organisation – operates. These include altering mindsets, successfully adopting new technology and embedding change into the new normal.

“People are fearful of change, and will look to maintain the status quo,” said Sheth. “So leadership is required to change doubters to believers, and champions are needed to keep it all on track.”

Joe David from accountancy firm Nephos said that his background as an accountant in industry gave him a mindset that creating and analysing good data was key in supporting the making of decisions. This led him down the path of creating an advisory- and technology-led practice.

Clarity’s Aynsley Damery said that established firms have to go that bit further when it comes to driving change, particularly if ingrained in providing services based purely on clients’ historical information. “It’s about looking forward as a firm, and looking forward on behalf of your clients,” said Damery. He said that ‘champions’ within the firm, who will help instil that mindset while managing change projects, were vital. “They’re so important in terms of connectivity between management and the team – interpreting the vision and how it will work.”

Practice Ignition’s Trent McLaren said: “You must set out from the top, across the entire firm, the direction and why you’re changing. You also have to let them know about progression, or you’ll inevitably end up with silos of knowledge.”

Click here to access the webinar.

tech, Xerocon, outsourcing

In September, we were at Xerocon Brisbane. Whilst we were there, we had the opportunity to catch up with our Australian clients, see some new faces and get the latest updates in tech. 

The biggest move we noticed in Australia is the increasing move into SMSF and bookkeeping for clients by accounting firms.  Clients want a holistic service from their trusted friend – their accountant!

Often the two go hand in hand and firms are increasingly asking us to manage the SMSF record keeping for the individual fund, but more importantly, the business owner wants the accountant to look after the business’ financial records.  This trend, which started a while back is turning into a flood, with businesses recognising that their energies are best spent in driving their business forward. 

Their accountant is now better able to help clients with Cashflow management using tools like Float, Fluidly, Fathom and Futrli for example. They can do this, because they are responsible for the regular production of management accountants, all enabled through technology. This was a very important growth area. 

In 2018 we wrote about the top three issues facing Australian firms

Talking with professionals this year in Brisbane we found that outsourcing is becoming more of an accepted way to deliver work. Some firms also wanted to hear about our dedicated offshore resource. 

But most successful firms among them have truly embraced the fact that their role has changed. 

They’re outsourcing as default, from compliance through to reporting, so that they can have a consistently proactive rather than reactive relationship with their clients. 

What moved them to make this decision?

1. They realised they’re not in the business of accounting

 

What?

A confusing statement for an audience of accountants. 

Our friends at GoProposal wrote a really great blog titled ‘You’re no longer in the Accounting business’.

It’s just as true in Australia as it is in the UK, perhaps even more so. 

When we meet accountants we often find ourselves asking them – what is it that your clients want? Yes, they want to save tax. Yes, they want to know that their affairs are sorted. But what do they really want? What are their goals for the growth of their business, for their family, for their future. 

The successful firms are now in the bigger-picture business. They’re having conversations with their clients about the things that really matter. 

There’s a growing demand for wealth management advice

One of those bigger picture conversations that’s in demand more and more in Australia is wealth management. There’s an increasing need for advice in personal and business wealth strategy, pensions and retirement, and many accountancy firms are filling the gap by moving into wealth advisory services.

As more individuals manage their own pensions with a self-managed superannuation fund (SMSF), the work involved is also rapidly growing for those accountants who have moved into the wealth space. This means two things:

  • The firm will be pushed to deliver more compliance work
  • The firm owner needs to free up more time firm-wide to have bigger conversations with clients and offer more value

As these two things happen in tandem, it means more training, stronger systems and consistent processes. This is where the need for outsourcing has become more than just offloading compliance work. At AdvanceTrack, our goal is to help you create the business structure to have the very best conversations with your clients. 

2. They understood they need to create the right environment for today’s staff

 

We partner with firms in the UK and AUS/NZ and we’re seeing that the same issues arise when it comes to staff retention. Once qualified, if not pushed to their potential, staff are leaving smaller practices for the big accountancy firms or migrating to tech companies. 

Australia is further along than the UK in digital development, and the tech space is an attractive option for graduates who are now learning to add value at an earlier stage in their career. 

At the same time, we’re seeing desktop software being discontinued. BGL, Australia’s leading SMSF admin software, has retired its desktop product in December. 

It’s adapt or be overtaken when it comes to transitioning to new technologies and giving clients real-time information. Business owners can access their finances at the click of a button now, meaning that roles have changed whether we like it or not. Cloud integration specialist, Chief Data Officer, Virtual FD – These are the next generation of job titles.

Your staff already don’t want to be stuck delivering low-level work now, and they won’t want to be stuck delivering low-level work in the future. And remember, it’s not why you became an accountant either! 

The firms who are seeing real growth realised early on that their people are working at the wrong level, and they’re outsourcing their core services to make room for more skilled, challenged and satisfied staff. 

Ask yourself these two questions

If you’re stuck in a compliance cycle right now, and you can’t see a way out of the hamster wheel, first ask yourself:

  • What do my clients really want?
  • What do my staff really want?

Then take a look at how you can go about joining the global community of firms on this outsourcing journey, and realise your new potential as an evolved accountant. 

 

Is outsourcing the same as offshoring?

In short, no. 

But we won’t end the blog there, because this is one of the most common hesitations from firms who are new to the idea of outsourcing, or just starting to dip their toes in. There’s a big misunderstanding that outsourcing and offshoring are just two different words for the same thing. 

At AdvanceTrack, we offer both offshoring and outsourcing, and the model that works best for you depends on the stage you’re at as a firm, and how your processes work. 

The compact answer

Offshoring = giving work to a third party overseas, or moving functions of your own business function overseas

Outsourcing = giving work to a third party anywhere

It is becoming more common for businesses to offshore processes to companies overseas

The word ‘offshore’ has some negative connotations to it, especially in the world of finance. Don’t worry – when we talk about offshoring here, it has nothing to do with international banking. Offshoring refers to a business contracting work out to another country, or moving their own business abroad, in order to take advantage of favourable economic conditions.

Offshoring isn’t exclusive to product manufacturing. It is becoming more common for businesses to offshore processes to companies overseas where the cost of labour is lower. It’s all legit and there’s nothing to stop you doing so. 

The benefits of our offshoring model compared to others:

  • You can scale with confidence: Build a team knowing that you can scale it, without the day to day IT and Training challenges
  • It’s secure & quality is assured: It is managed and controlled by international Quality and Security Standards audited by BSI. 
  • You have holiday and sickness cover: You can save yourself time and HR hassles and never lose a day of production.

You can find out more about why we outsource to India here.

You can outsource to a service provider anywhere, in order to utilise greater expertise

Outsourcing refers simply to the practice of hiring a third party or individual to carry out work that has historically been carried out in-house. You can outsource to a service provider anywhere, in order to utilise greater expertise, or free up more time for you to focus on the work you love, that you’re best at. That service provider may be in the same country or even the same local area as you, or they may be overseas. 

The benefits of outsourcing:

  • Years of expertise – without having to take on a new employee and train them up to the level you require, you can give the work to a specialist with years of experience under their belt. 
  • You have more time to focus on more important areas – you won’t have to spend all your time and energy on the process you’re outsourcing, freeing you up to focus on the areas that need your attention. 
  • You can save on tech – you can rest assured your expert has the tech they need to do the job. If you’re not having to provide the infrastructure to support the work in-house, you can save on technology expenses. 
  • A difference in time zone may be advantageous – you may find outsourcing outside of your time zone works better. You can go to sleep and wake up to completed work!

You can read more about why we suggest outsourcing here

Saving money is desirable, but the decision to outsource should not be driven by the desire for cheap work

Where the confusion between offshoring and outsourcing is most detrimental is the perceived benefit of cheap labour – that the point of either is to simply deliver your existing services or products at a cheaper cost. Saving money is desirable, of course. Who doesn’t love to save money? But you may find that spending less money results in a higher cost to your relationships with clients. 

Our clients don’t outsource to us because they want us to do the more manual work at a cheaper rate. For starters, how would you go about deciding what your ‘cheaper’ work is?

Your compliance function is your core work – the work that needs to be done well and done consistently. It isn’t something you want just anyone to do. You certainly don’t want to compromise your high level reporting and life-changing advice for the sake of cheap rates either. 

Our clients work with us for our expertise in the industry of accounting, for our desire to make them more proactive in delivering value to their clients – but mostly because they have the right mindset. 

The most successful outsourcing is driven by a growth mindset

It’s not about saving money, but it’s also not exclusive to the big firms either. We’ve worked with Sole Practitioners, two office practices, multi-partner practices and major international groups. We’ve found it’s not about the size, it’s about the attitude. The firms that see the most success are those who are able to look at their current offering and say “I want to be able to do more”. Those who don’t want to be stuck doing compliance only. Those who don’t want to see staff leave to do higher level work elsewhere. Those who want to be an integral part of their client’s business strategy instead of waiting on a monthly conversation. 

We wrote more about those types of firms here.

Choose the engagement model that works best for you

Do you want to:

  • Do more of the work you love?
  • Improve the client experience by having the time to offer more value?
  • Free up space to train more of the team to deliver your high level work?
  • Have the processes in place to make more profit?

Great! All you need is a little help figuring out which model suits you best. 

Scalable Delivery Model (Outsourcing)

  • You have a standardised process
  • You have fluctuating demand across the year
  • You understand deadlines and will work with our teams to get the process right
  • You understand that a team supports you

Dedicated Offshore Delivery (Offshoring)

  • You don’t have a standardised approach
  • You have steady workloads across the year
  • Your service is quite bespoke to your clients
  • You want to speak to the same team members every day

Ask yourself where your business is right now, and what you want to achieve. Then let us help you figure out which option is best for you. Take this short questionnaire to tell us about your outsourcing needs. It only takes a few minutes. 

What has technology-driven change meant for practitioners at the coalface? We get the detail from four accountants about how their role has evolved as part of creating a fit-for-purpose and modern practice.


Stephen Smallwood is managing director of Herefordshire-based practice Thorne Widgery.

What’s your current role?

As managing director, I try and run the business ‘as a business’. For the running of the business, the fact that I’m an accountant is almost incidental. I do much less client work than I used to.

I’ve always enjoyed tech work more than compliance. I get a great deal of satisfaction from making IT systems work and delivering value, rather than filling in a statutory report.

We’ve been actively involved in moving from a traditional practice to one of the leading proponents of IT systems – not hardware and cables, but systems for how you run your business. We were awarded Small Firms Innovator of the Year at the British Accountancy Awards last year.

How has your role developed, and why?

In the past five to ten years, I’ve moved from being a typical, though progressive, accountant serving clients, to being a director of a business that operates in the professional services sector.

We’re using Xero and its practice management module (XPM) and have converted to the cloud. We love it for our clients, but to my astonishment we’ve also ended up helping other accounting practices get the best out of modern and accessible software by helping them evolve their own back office. Altogether it has completely revolutionised how we go about things.

What has that meant for the running of the practice? Is it part of a broader strategic change?

I’d say that supporting other practices is now 15% of our business, which has developed from ‘Xero’ over the last three years. No accountant is normally allowed to get close and personal with other firms of accountants, but we do because of our knowledge of XPM. The result of that is we get to see some really interesting, good examples of practices, and we learn as well.

Our screens are full of pictures and graphs that allow us to analyse up-to-date information and find trends.

Do you prefer what you’re doing now?

It’s so exciting and so much more fun. Hereford is a small pond for us to fish so it has got us out and about and we’ve become a national practice.


Nathan Lewis is a client relationship manager at Bristol-based d&t Chartered Accountants.

What’s your current role?

As tax senior within the practice, I look at tax compliance and returns – along with some advisory work as well. I help junior members of staff, alongside dealing with HMRC enquiries – my background as someone who worked for the Inland Revenue and then during its merger to become HM Revenue & Customs helps.

How has your role developed, and why?

I see it as an evolution of tasks. The first online tax returns filed at the Revenue were printed off and then manually entered. And then, as I went into practice, tax software meant that boxes of clients’ receipts were no longer required.

Tech has also changed us from being a local company to an international one, where we can communicate over Skype. With Xero and QuickBooks you can even ‘take over’ a client’s desktop to show them how to use the software.

These tech platforms allow us to have much quicker access to client information. This allows us to review it more quickly, and plan for the future, rather than view information retrospectively.

What has it meant for the running of the practice and client service?

The tech enables one-man-band-style accountants to do more; so we have to use information and increase our value to clients – show them the extra things we can do.

The tax landscape is going to continue to change – HMRC wants to reduce the number of returns it receives – so we will look to offer more advisory-focused services and tax planning rather than looking backwards.

Up-to-date information is going to become even more important. Look at IHT for example, having the ability to see a client’s position and plan things such as gifts out of income for the years ahead.


Andrew Perrettis cloud accounting manager at TC Group (formerly Taylorcocks).

What’s your current role?

It covers lots of different things: the main role is to review cloud software and help staff and clients use technology. For clients, I help them with the scoping process to best choose tech solutions, then onto implementation and training.

As there’s only one of me, I’m also training team members so they can offer basic advice around accountancy software and add-ons.

How has your role developed, and why?

The role began officially in January 2018. I’ve been at TC for more than 11 years, qualifying as an accountant and then working with another manager to support a partner with their portfolio of clients.

I was looking after fewer clients than the other manager but my clients required more work: bookkeeping, monthly accounts, management reports. And then we looked at a way of managing my clients more effectively. Between the partner and myself we developed a process to get clients onto Xero using automated invoice capture, through to bookkeeping and reporting. With every client on the same process it made the whole thing much smoother.

Once we had 30 clients onboard, we looked to take it out across our other offices. I became more internally focused during 2017 as this process went on – and so I transitioned over my clients to other staff towards the end of that year.

What has it meant for the running of the practice and client service?

All bookkeeping across offices is done on Xero – we had shied away from the service because it wasn’t profitable. Now we actively go to win that and their whole process.

We do very much report back to clients – adding value through meeting people and discussing their up-to-date information.

Do you prefer what you’re doing now?

It’s exciting: working with staff and seeing our offices; working with clients on projects that provide value to them, teaching them about tech they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of.

My work is less accountancy-focused now, but clearly I retain the fundamentals. I do lots of CPD-accredited training related to my role – so it’s not a problem keeping that up.


David Rudd is senior client manager and business growth accountant at Colchester-based Wood and Disney, an AdvanceTrack client.

What’s your current role?

If a client has any issue I’m there to help them deal with it. Sometimes that can be historic compliance issues, but more recently it’s about ‘where they want to go’, ‘what will be the impact of me doing A, B or C’.

I’ll try and get to the heart of it – to understand what they really want to do; often their direction is not tax-related at all.

How has your role developed?

I’ve been here three years. At first it was similar to what I’d done before: accounts; corporate tax; and returns. Now everything’s in the cloud and in one place it becomes much easier to project forward for our clients – this leads to project work that isn’t about just compliance.

One client had 50% of turnover tied up in debtors – we then became their back office so they could focus on the business. Now they’ve progressed and have their own bookkeeper, and we have moved onto strategic analysis at board level – they have a bigger team and the next set of issues to deal with, but their financial performance has skyrocketed.

I now look at tech and see if it can break… then, if it works, how can we evolve it to make it even better for us? We’ve looked at every process, every single thing we do – can we do it better, find a way to evolve it, or speed it up to get a better result for the client?

What has that meant for the running of the practice?

It means we’re more goals-focused, which leads us to ask clients where they want to get to.

Using AdvanceTrack to take on accounts preparation and bookkeeping has freed us up to do other things.

While this created the opportunity for us to do different things, we then had to structure the team to work suited to them. We created an organisational structure to work out where we needed to head. Then we underwent DISC profiling to understand what people liked and what they should be doing.

If clients need specialist advice we now have strategic alliances in place… nearly every decision they make, they ask us first.

If we solve those problems then the tech will never replace that, because it’s about trust and helping people, that’s how we look at it. Tech’s not enough to solve the complex problems people face.

Have you had to learn new things?

It’s certainly taught me how to better speak to clients, and then I flipped it [onto managing director Peter Disney and operations director Brendon Howlett] and did it to them…

I’d never had or taken a board meeting or ‘taken charge’ of things – so that’s been transformative for me. That’s all from Brendon and Peter pushing me. I’ve also had some soft skills training, which was massively important – to better understand people.

AdvanceTrack’s webinar series contains lots of insight to help you set out the direction for your practice. We round up a chat with Receipt Bank’s Sam Horner on ‘the future is now’ for accountants, and highlight our other online discussions

AdvanceTrack has a great catalogue of webinars for practitioners. Topics range from how to approach bookkeeping, through to credit control and even marketing advice – in conjunction with some of the UK’s top accountancy experts.

We’ve included an excerpt from a webinar with Receipt Bank’s Sam Horner: The Next Generation of Accounting. This wide-ranging discussion sets the scene for how and why advisers must look at their practice’s operations as part of a strategy to develop value for a modern client.

Sam is joined by AdvanceTrack MD Vipul Sheth in the chat.

 

Starting point

Vipul Sheth:When we talk about the cloud, an indicator of how far a practice has gone down this path is the number of apps and add-ons they use alongside the core bookkeeping product. It’s an indicator of how far you’ve gone down the cloud journey – are you giving clients real-time information?

Sam Horner:The issue we see with early adopters of the cloud is they take on the bookkeeping service and see it as a silver bullet, but the cloud is more powerful when combined with everything – whether that’s apps for accounts, invoicing, chasing debt and so on.

VS:Real efficiencies come from using other add-ons. And optical character reading (OCR) is a key part of data capture.

 

Factors driving change

SH:MTD does have a say in this, but a lot of the change is being driven by clients. It’s about the way millennials and Generation Z communicate and live their life. Conversations I hear where ‘we use our phones for an alarm, go downstairs and listen to Spotify, tell Alexa to change TV channel, get in the car and it tells you how to get to work, then at work everything’s offline’… The tech stops and they don’t engage with cloud apps in the same way as at home, so the drive and shift is coming from how they operate in their personal life.

VS:If accounting practices have a great relationship with long-standing clients, then they must appreciate that their clients’ business will hand over to their kids – and they’ll expect information over their smartphone. They’ll question why financials aren’t available online. So, firms need champions who can at least have conversations about how their firm’s going to develop.

SH:There is a big question about ‘how do I get clients to change’ and educate them? But you might be surprised, there can be preconceptions about established clients – the previous generations.

VS:The real difference we see with working with clients online is that with regular interaction, your firm can spot gaps where things are missing, rather than getting well past year-end and find things are missing. Then you have to make assumptions on behalf of the client.

We see MTD as just another button to press, for those that are on cloud. However, some think that if you’re making processes automated and ‘easier’, the client will actually want fees lowered.

SH:Well, then you have to show the benefits of the technology. If you can give a client their accounts by the third of the month, then to the client it’s as close to real-time as possible and helps them make decisions. One of our practice clients made this move and offered a premium service to their clients: 30% took up the premium service. But, in reality, the partners aren’t really doing anything different but have created more revenue.

And firms are having conversations where, after adopting tech, they put clients onto fixed fees across a period, and the client is happy.

VS:But where it frees the accountant is for other services: R&D reviews, tax planning meetings and so on. These things were hard to do, but now all clients can be seen because you have access to their data in real-time.

This morphs into CFO-style services. Many businesses can’t afford a full-time accounting professional in their firm. But real-time access enables them to have better conversations, almost as their CFO. I know a practitioner who specialises in a sector, and can now benchmark the client base.

 

The next generation of job roles

VS:Lots of firms we’re working with can perform the CFO role; using tech to capture and process information. They then use our team in many instances to do the bits that technology can’t. We call this ‘systemising the unsystemisable’.

SH:At Receipt Bank we say ‘it’s great to have badges and logos on your website of products, but they just enable you – don’t dine out on them’. They just power what you do. The tech is there to make yourself easier.

For the next title: Chief Data Officer or analyst. This role comes as the government is getting tighter and tighter in the risk management side of sharing of data.

VS:This role is about making sure the integration piece is properly run and tested. In smaller firms these roles or ‘hats’ are worn by the same person – you have specific roles when it comes to larger firms.

SH:We’re seeing firms recruit staff without an accounting background: 18+ year-olds with iPads in their hands, employing them because they understand tech. Clearly it’s also about mindset rather than age… but in reality for many there’s that ‘desktop memory’ in your mind, which isn’t there for someone starting fresh. Junior staff are helping with onboarding, for example.

VS:Yes, we’re seeing conversations being pushed down in the firms – not all partner-led… more of a team-based approach. Your age and experience aren’t limiting factors on who you can have conversations with. The person who’s comfortable sitting in a room having conversations will be recruited.

SH:There are other emerging titles: relationship manager, business development and software support for clients. Firms are investing in people and skills. You used to be able to hide behind numbers, but firms are saying: ‘We need to look at how to upskill our team to have conversations.’ There is still a need for technical specialists and software won’t replace them. But there’s going to be more face time, and that’s where we see the shift.

 

How to change your practice

VS:Fundamentally, you need clean data coming in: from OCR, bank feeds and so on.

SH:It’s about having a single process for a single task. If you standardise processes, you’ll reap the rewards – and allow you to scale-up.

VS:The cloud and digitisation allow you to gain an authenticity of data. However, if you don’t standardise processes you will have very stressed staff through MTD.

Summary

VS:Technology is the key to scale and profitability. Standardisation, repeatable processes… the more you can do that, the more you’ll be in great stead.

SH:And make sure you do it for the right reasons. It’s not about MTD. You need to understand the ‘why’ before the ‘how’. Why are you making the change? Get the tech in and let us do the processing. It’s about improving the conversations and then your team becomes much more valuable because they have those client relationships.

We have assembled a panel of industry experts to give their thoughts on potential tech developments, challenges facing them and their aspirations for 2019 and beyond

It’s that time of the year when we all think about what’s in store over the next 12 months. What are your hopes and aspirations for your practice, and how will that be influenced by the world of technology as it continues to accelerate its offerings? Will those naughty twins that are MTD and Brexit derail everything – or can we flex and adapt to changing circumstances?

AdvanceTrack spoke to major UK tech houses, alongside accounting practices, to gauge their thoughts and moods on 2019.

Tech

We spoke to Steve Cox, chief evangelist at IRIS Software Group; Alex Davis, business development manager at Intuit QuickBooks; and Damon Anderson, director of partner and product at Xero

Q: What tech development is your company working on that most excites you for the year ahead?


Steve Cox:
We are excited about the continued development of APIs across the government and industry. We believe these collaborations – whether it’s with HMRC, other vendors, or wider applications – will dominate the year ahead. To ensure all new technologies are accessible and relevant, we see micro services and integration brought together on a resilient platform, such as IRIS’ Project Darwin. Firms will be able to manage their practices on an integrated cloud platform with a suite of products and services to digitally manage and optimise every step of the client journey from first touch to filing of final accounts.

Alex Davis: Bringing together siloed data is one important way we help save customers and their advisers time, and reduce the risk of manual errors. For example, we have direct bank feeds with three major retail banks in the UK, covering 60% of the UK market. Direct bank feeds automate much of the time-consuming data entry associated with bookkeeping.

Tax prep is an area in which we continue to add value for accountants who spend an excessive amount of time gathering data for a single client on an annual or quarterly basis. Multiply this by 25 or more, and it’s clearly a problem that needs to be solved, especially with MTD around the corner.

Damon Anderson: It probably comes as no surprise that we will be developing our artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities further. Although, as the world digitises even more, so too will the world of work humanise more. And these things will have to work hand-in-hand.

So we’ll continue to focus a lot of our efforts on developing and improving AI, in turn improving automation features that free up valuable time for accountants and small businesses to take control of cash flow and run businesses more strategically.

Q: What challenges do accountancy tech providers face in the year ahead, and how will you approach them?


SC:
The challenges in the year ahead will be to respond to government and industry demands for greater integration and find innovative ways of solving problems as they arise, no matter the cause or origin; these include areas such as calculation mistakes which often falls with the provider, even if it’s a third-party mistake. Practitioners see the benefits of the advanced technology but need our help to build a blueprint for success and take advantage in the digital economy.

AD: There is little doubt that over the coming months practitioners will be focused on firstly identifying which of their clients need to be migrated to MTD-compliant software. Then, they will put the plans in place to manage those migrations efficiently. This will involve the transfer of critical financial data, along with educating staff and clients on how to use the software efficiently.

Once these building blocks are in place, we expect the conversation to move towards how these insights can be put to use. Cloud software offers visibility into real-time data that can be used to enrich client relationships and aid planning and advisory services. This is a prime opportunity for accountants and bookkeepers to up-level their roles.

DA: We’ve been working closely with accountants, bookkeepers and small business owners for some time to ensure they are informed about how best to prepare for HMRC’s Making Tax Digital for VAT initiative. We’re also helping our customers prepare with our recent acquisition of Instafile, a cloud-based accounts preparation and tax filing solution that connects accountants, bookkeepers and small businesses to UK compliance bodies including HMRC.

Automation will also continue to have an impact on the accounting industry in 2019. It will continue to transform the ways that accounting firms interact with data and their clients.

Practice

We spoke to John Brace, managing director of Harwood Hutton; Alex Falcon Huerta, CEO and founder of Soaring Falcon; Carl Reader, director at d&t Chartered Accountants; and Bruce Burrowes, founder of Kingston Burrowes

Q: What are your aspirations for your practice in the year ahead, and how will they be achieved?

John Brace: Despite some very gloomy Brexit-related forecasts, we are planning to achieve measurable growth next year and are already recruiting additional people to deal with this.

We see growth in more specialised areas of advisory work, both for business and private clients and we have seen this trend through the current year. Brexit is creating a lot of opportunities for us, particularly in Customs & Excise consultancy in which we expect to achieve significant growth.

On the private client side, probate, executor and trustee services are in demand and this is also linked to our business-owning clients. We expect a measurable expansion in these services.

Alex Falcon Huerta: We are looking to expand beyond just accounting to bring other processes online for our clients. This way, when they have access to all their information in real-time it will give our clients real control.

And, as much as I love tech, I want to work with products that offer just a bit more, to reduce the ‘stack’ of products we use.

Carl Reader: For me, the biggest target is to make sure that we set our board up for success. We’ve been going through a reorganisation, and now that we have the new leadership team in place, it is now our job to let them drive the practice forwards.

For them, they are looking at how we can continue to provide additional services to our customers. In particular, we are looking at how we can support them with their funding requirements, and at how we can change the dynamic of our service so that our value is provided in planning and strategy, rather than reporting and compliance.

Bruce Burrowes: We’re looking to grow and consolidate. We need to continue our growth to ensure we not only replace the natural attrition of clients, but also grow to meet our aspirations. The consolidation part is about ensuring the relationship we have is appropriate for the client needs. Both of these are continual.

Q: What technology development, from a practice’s point of view, would you like to see in the next year?

JB: To be honest, none would be a pleasant surprise. There is much talk about AI but I think we are still a long way off from seeing real benefit. Like electric cars, I think it is still a bit early to start rushing into adoption.

This links with cybersecurity and I would like to see more activity in this area before we go headlong into AI and perhaps have our data plundered. I also fear the introduction of MTD, which seems to be on this week but who knows what will be said next week. Many business are blissfully unaware and I just feel HMRC resources are spread too thinly and it will end in tears, especially if we have a no-deal Brexit.

AFH: I would really like to not have to write emails anymore! Any development that improves workflow and communication between me, clients and staff would also be gratefully received.

CR: The biggest technological opportunity is moving our data fully into the cloud, to remove reliance on our on-premise tech. We also want to broaden our software offerings for our customers, so that we can help them integrate their key business processes.

BB: We’d like to see a continual improvement in HMRC’s systems. These need to continue to evolve in terms of interaction and guidance.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face in achieving your practice’s goals in 2019?

JB: One of our biggest challenges stems from HMRC, regrettably. The standard of service and output is sinking to new lows almost daily.

Gone are the days when HMRC could be relied upon to be professional and collect the correct amount of tax. The recent Lords’ Report is a good commentary on the parlous state of our tax service and their aims.

It’s time to curtail their powers. Practitioners have to deal with this daily as well as the constant changes in rules and the obsession with new powers. I would hope that practitioners are robust enough to handle the challenges but they need more support from the professional bodies. I just feel sorry for unrepresented taxpayers.

AFH: Recruitment has been and will continue to be a huge challenge. I would like to overcome that for my practice. I’m seeing more people coming through that are comfortable with using new technology and hopefully I’ll be able to tap into their skills.

CR: Our biggest challenge is around recruitment. Finding staff who have not been ‘brainwashed’ by a traditional practice is really difficult!

We recruit based on the person-first, and only then do we even consider skillset. Unfortunately, we find that most firms have a skills-first approach, which combined with the natural personality types that are drawn to accountancy, means that new recruits struggle to adapt to d&t’s culture and customer service expectations.

BB: Bringing staff on to be able to meet client requirements. Clients want more and more business information, and as their trusted adviser we are the first port of call.

Vipul’s view

AdvanceTrack’s MD and founder gives his take on the year ahead

The biggest challenge ahead for accountants is meeting client expectations. Clients expect their accountant to solve problems, whether it’s MTD or other things. They will not forgive their accountant for failing to provide options to keep them compliant (and at a sensible cost). Some businesses won’t be able to afford the accountant to do all the work, so technology becomes extremely important.

In our recent webinar with ReceiptBank, I spoke about scalability of services offered by accountants – without tech you can’t scale your service.

So, the journey that both accountants and customers must take is around effective onboarding, capture of client info, processing of that data, and then at the end how do you communicate what has happened in that client’s world, and at scale?

You can’t spend your time crunching numbers. That’s what the world is going to look like – and in the new world, it will feel like 31 January every quarter unless you adapt and help your clients to do the same.

Accountants can seem fearful of change, and their profession is described by some as slow-moving. This is strange, considering the bulk of their compliance work – tax and accounting – is an ever-changing beast. We discuss where to start your technological odyssey

Change in tax and accounting is relentless and seems to be picking up speed. For those that feel bogged down by the grunt work of manual processes, what changes can be made quickly that will improve their working life – and perhaps even provide a better client service?

For Nick Gregory, marketing director at IRIS, it is a tough proposition for smaller practices to add change that isn’t ‘forced’ upon them, particularly smaller ones, when they struggle to keep up with legislative churn.

However, the combination of digitally-focused rules such as Making Tax Digital and GDPR mean that firms must develop their systems and processes.

Ultimately, the starting point is the client. If their information comes into the practice in a standard digital format, then every other step becomes easier. “You have to decide: do I want clients to do their own bookkeeping or manage it as a service for them – and even outsourcing it to someone else?” says Gregory.

For Gregory, getting this step into place is virtuous: as cleaner, more accurate and timely data comes in, time is freed up to provide higher-value services.

“Train clients to be more efficient and then use that to drive up productivity,” he says. “A box of receipts gives you no intelligence; get it into a bookkeeping system and then into a more insight-based tech at your end, things then just snowball. If workflow tools are tied into compliance you can then improve communication to clients. And the extra transactional data you receive through MTD allows you to better understand your clients – and then look at forecasting and business planning.”

Managing the transition

However, the thought of herding clients onto a bookkeeping package or helping them manage the transition to managing it themselves in a way that will help you capture their information is a big ask.

Della Hudson, a former practice owner who has recently written The Numbers Business: How to Grow a Successful Cloud Accountancy Practice, sees a way to break down the client management problem. You may want to implement an onboarding process that initially only captures details about new clients, she says. It could still lead them towards a bookkeeping service, but is a lower risk alternative to an immediate transfer of all existing clients.

“When it’s not broken but inefficient, then you think carefully about the transition,” she explains.

Tech companies have got better at providing advice around how to implement tools and what they deliver, “but how you do it is where you might need some coaching and advice – your needs will be specific”, Hudson says.

New practices

But what about new practices? What has been their approach to technology, and can a more established practice learn from them?

James Twigger runs the successful Accounting4Everything in Paignton, Devon. Set up in April 2016 as a one-man-band, he now employs eight staff.

Twigger did not feel wedded to a particular system or platform when he set up the firm – but he did know that, from a workflow, data and process perspective, he wanted to work on the cloud.

A series of standard but scalable tech was then chosen: AccountancyManager for onboarding; TaxCalc for tax production; Xero and QuickBooks for bookkeeping; and OneDrive as a data repository.

“I consider myself systematic,” says Twigger, “but had these individual elements that were brought together and integrated. We don’t keep any paper files, which has meant we’ve never had to pay excessive storage costs.”

The combination of an onboarding process and digital services means clients use automated receipt capture and invoicing at the start of the relationship. “Automating makes our lives and clients’ lives easier,” says Twigger. “We can train clients to make sure they use the system they’re comfortable with.”

Flexibility and agility

Small practitioners have a key advantage when it comes to change – they have some flexibility and agility. However, they are usually resource constrained… how can sole practices deliver for clients while thinking about making changes to the tools used to provide that delivery?

This is a key issue. Creating a more digitally-focused practice requires a shift in attitude, as well as strategy and planning. Practitioners need to be brave and take a leap of faith.

Della Hudson thinks that small practices should, for starters, make time to map out processes: “Even if it’s just with Post-It notes, you’ll soon find inefficiencies.”

Identify the ‘A-list’ of biggest inefficiencies, but also a list of ‘quick wins’. Then look for a tech solution to the problem. “Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you start with, but start with something,” says Hudson.

In a presentation to the ICAEW’s Practice 2018: Connecting in a Digital World conference, new sole practitioner Rachel Balchin spoke about approaching technology with a ‘try it and see’ approach. She said it is difficult to know which technology will suit you and your clients if you don’t use it. “If you don’t like it, try something else and move on,” Balchin told the audience.

In her post-conference blog, Balchin talks about the “tad overwhelming” tech options available. “There are somany different options to explore, it can be a tad overwhelming, but I’ve found the cloud-based accountancy packages to be really helpful in engaging with my clients, and managing my workload,” she said. “I’m going to be spending some time in the next few months exploring what other systems and apps might be available to help my clients – and help me – do things more efficiently.”

James Twigger concludes that the role of the accountant is changing, and is being driven by both client needs and regulatory change. He says: “They expect you to be able to produce information instantly, but with electronic filing systems we can produce old correspondence in seconds and send it to them in minutes. That’s what modern clients want.”

  • The Numbers Business: How to Grow a Successful Cloud Accountancy Practice, is available to purchase on Amazon.

Improving efficiency within an accountancy firm is one of the top reasons we hear for adopting new technologies. However, smoother workflows and increased productivity need to be earned; it’s never as simple as switching to a new app or software.

This reality can often trip you up. If you rush headlong into using the latest tech, without taking the time to consider if it’s the right move for your firm, you can end up right back where you started – just significantly out of pocket.

And funding the switch isn’t the only challenge associated with implementing new technology. It can impact productivity and morale in the short-term, errors can increase while staff become accustomed to a new way of doing things, and security concerns can be laid bare.

So, to overcome these challenges, take a moment and review the following 3 step process.

Step 1: Understand your motivations

Before you introduce a new piece of technology to your practice, you first need to truly understand your motivation for doing so. If you’re clear in your own mind as to why you’ve decided to replace an outdated piece of software, it will make identifying its replacement a great deal easier.

Let’s say, for example, that your staff are spending too much time on manually entering data into a spreadsheet. In theory, a cloud-enabled, automated software solution could save them time that would be better spent elsewhere. However, implementing that software would represent an additional cost to the business, not to mention the time and resource spent on training, and the disruption to the existing workflow as your staff currently understands it.

Now, in the long-term, you should see the benefit of making the switch. Your staff will save time and increase efficiency, turning their focus to more profitable activities. And yet, if you move ahead without giving any consideration to your motivation to adopt this new technology, you can become deterred when faced with the issues mentioned previously.

Step 2: Undertake due diligence

Once you’ve shortlisted a few of the software solutions that meet your requirements, you still need to take a breath and make certain that the advantages for switching outweigh the disadvantages.

Undertaking a period of due diligence is therefore highly recommended. 

Work closely with those affected by the change to minimise push back, and encourage an open and honest dialogue throughout the implementation process. If the software offers a free trial, take them up on it and let your staff road test the various options to get a feel for what works best for them.

If you have concerns over security, raise them with the software provider. Then, whittle your choices down to the one that ticks the most boxes.

Step 3: Be patient & address concerns

Now that you’ve identified the software solution for you, it’s important to accept that efficiency won’t be transformed overnight. There are many more challenges to come. Here are a few tips to help you address them:

  • Appoint in-house ambassadors for the technology: Spend additional time and resource training a select group of staff members to the highest possible standards, so that they can lead the way when it comes to using the software. This will help smooth the transition and keep morale high.
  • Embrace transparency: Try to avoid taking any unilateral decisions when it comes to the technology. This will only serve to frustrate and confuse your staff. Be transparent with your decision making and talk regularly with those impacted by the change.
  • Be patient: Introducing new technology is often about short-term pain for long-term gain. This requires a degree of patience and understanding as your staff get to grips with a new approach.

In summary

The pursuit of improved levels of efficiency will often demand innovation. The opportunity to solve problems with new technology should be embraced, but the challenges associated should never be overlooked.

By following this simple 3 step process, you should be able to meet those challenges head on, and ultimately increase productivity in your accountancy practice.